How Cloud9 Joined The Overwatch League

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2016-05-24

Over the weekend at Blizzcon, Blizzard announced that the long-awaited inaugural season of the Overwatch League will officially start in December. The first-person shooter with flying gorillas, robot monks and stoic Russians has taken the gaming world by storm, with over 30 million players worldwide. The Overwatch League is Blizzard’s attempt to strike while the Torbjörn hammer’s hot and capitalize on the meteoric rise of esports over the last few years. Blizzard, working alongside big organizations and venture capitalists, hopes to turn the massive Overwatch playerbase into viewers of its official esports tournaments.

"there’s a lot that goes into making a brand as big as the LA Rams."

The Cloud9 team is one of the oldest and largest esports franchises to ever come out of professional video gaming. The team first competed in League Of Legends in 2012 and has since expanded from a scrappy group of kids to squads in all the top esports games, with sponsorships from corporate behemoths like Red Bull, Logitech and T-Mobile. According to a recent Nielsen report, C9 is one of the most recognized esports organizations in the United States and the UK and it only continues to grow. The team’s involvement with the Overwatch League started one year ago at Blizzcon 2016, where Cloud 9’s CEO, Jack Etienne, and the org’s president, Daniel Fiden, sat down alongside a group of potential owners in a series of small meetings to discuss what Blizzard wanted to construct.

“Blizzard’s plans were incredibly ambitious,” Fiden told Player.One. “The scale of what they wanted to accomplish was huge, as you’d expect from Blizzard-Activision. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement around that.”

Nate Nanzer, Overwatch League commissioner and the rest of the OL team were incredibly helpful to C9, but it was Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision-Blizzard, who really showed how serious Blizzard was about this esports endeavor. “Kotick was personally involved with Cloud9 from day one,” Fiden said. “He was a huge part of our interaction with the company, both with how the deal and League were going to be structured, how we should be thinking about geography choice. The fact he was spending so much time on the Overwatch League gave us a huge degree of confidence.”

Blizzard’s plan for an esports league would eventually leak and spread across the community. In July, ESPN reported Blizzard was in talks with six traditional sports team owners, but did not actively court esports orgs. Fiden said that couldn’t be farther from the truth and clarified that Kotick pursued C9 because he wanted the “League to have an independent (esports org) owner, not just an organization that had some endemic or operational experience, but had been bought by somebody else. He really wanted to see a CEO of an org who was participating independently as an owner in the League.”

The Overwatch League wants to be a transcontinental esports league, with currently twelve teams based around the world to compete in weekly high-stakes matches. Other games might have tournaments in different countries, but teams in the Overwatch League represent a physical city or country in virtual combat. Blizzard wants fans to feel a connection to their hometown team; a New Yorker should feel the same love for the Overwatch League Excelsior squad as they do for the Yankees. The first season of OL will hold tournaments at the Blizzard Arena in LA. In the future, international orgs will compete in games held in their respective cities, and if all goes as planned, esports stadiums funded by the orgs.

According to Fiden, Blizzard sought partners that have “a strong view and applicable experience on how to successfully operate an esports competitive team.”

“It’s different than running a traditional sports team,” Fiden explained. “You need to know how to create content in a way that is organic and brand-building within the esports fan community. Teams that could demonstrate that they could build a big-global brand and have the resources for it, not just financial. They need advisory support, production development resources — there’s a lot that goes into making a brand as big as the LA Rams.” It’s not about just making money, but the company Azeroth built needs teams with sufficient capital to last the long-term.

Cloud9 expressed serious commitment for the Overwatch League. In August. Cloud 9 picked up London-based pro team Laser Kittenz to compete in Overwatch Contender Season 1 under the C9 banner (which was eventually dropped) and has since built up a powerhouse roster of South Korean superstars that took third place in the fourth season of Overwatch APEX. Historically, C9 was exclusively represented by North American teams, so the choice to represent Europe seemed a bit odd. However, Fiden explains:

“(NA) is still a huge piece of ourselves and our business, but our fan base is fairly well distributed around the Western world,” said Fiden. “London is a top-tier, high-class city in every way and to have an opportunity there is huge.” Other orgs did vie for the spot, like the European-based Fnatic, but only C9 made it through.

With all the pieces in place and Cloud9’s spot in the Overwatch League secure, a fan vote named the team Spitfire , the famous WWII fighter plane of the British Royal Forces. But C9's fight has only begun:

“We have a lot to prove to the esports fan base. Just getting the franchise is not necessarily the time to declare victory,” Fiden said.

The Overwatch League begins Dec. 9 and you can follow London Spitfire on Twitter.

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